The Evangelical Adoption Crusade

The Evangelical Adoption Crusade

Declaring a global “orphan crisis,” US evangelicals ride to the rescue—with unintended results.


Research support for this article was provided by the Investigative Fund at The Nation Institute.

In late March Craig Juntunen told a group of Christian adoption advocates assembled at a Chandler, Arizona, home about his plans to increase international adoptions fivefold. Just over a year before, the world had been riveted by the saga of Laura Silsby, the American missionary arrested while trying to transport Haitian children across the Dominican border. But the lessons of that scandal seemed far from Juntunen’s mind as he described his “crusade to create a culture of adoption” by simplifying adoption’s labyrinthine ethical complexities to their emotional core. Juntunen, a former pro football quarterback and the adoptive father of three Haitian children, has emerged as a somewhat rogue figure in the adoption world since he recently founded an unorthodox nonprofit, Both Ends Burning. He has commissioned a documentary about desperate orphans in teeming institutions, Wrongfully Detained, and proposed a “clearinghouse model” that will raise the number of children adopted into US families to more than 50,000 per year.

Juntunen acknowledges that many adoption experts find his proposals naïve, particularly in a year that witnessed scandals in Haiti, Nepal and most recently Ethiopia, where widespread irregularities and trafficking allegations may slow the once-booming program to a crawl. He met a chilly reception recently at the Adoption Policy Conference at New York Law School when he spoke alongside State Department officials. But Juntunen insists that his ideas for increasing adoption constitute a social movement, akin to the civil rights movement, and that the force of a growing “adoption culture” will help them prevail.

In this expectation, he may be right. In Arizona, Juntunen was speaking with Dan Cruver, head of Together for Adoption, a key coalition in a growing evangelical adoption movement. The event was the first of the organization’s new “house conferences”: small-scale meet-ups bolstering an active national movement that promotes Christians’ adopting as a way to address a worldwide “orphan crisis” they say encompasses hundreds of millions of children. It’s a message Cruver also emphasizes in his book Reclaiming Adoption—one in a growing list of titles about “orphan theology,” which teaches that adoption mirrors Christian salvation, plays an essential role in antiabortion politics and is a means of fulfilling the Great Commission, the biblical mandate that Christians spread the gospel.

Yet while Cruver and his colleagues have inspired thousands of Christians to enter the arduous and expensive process of international adoption, the adoption industry is on a steep decline after years of ethical problems and tightening regulations around the world. Since the mid-’90s, eighty-three countries have ratified the Hague convention regulating international adoption. By 2010 there were 12,000 such adoptions in the United States (including 1,100 exceptional “humanitarian parole” cases from post-earthquake Haiti)—almost half those at the peak in 2004. If evangelicals heed Cruver’s call en masse, it could mean not just a radical change in who raises the world’s children but a powerful clash between rapidly falling supply and sharply inflating demand.

* * *

Adoption has long been the province of religious and secular agencies, but in the past two years evangelical advocacy has skyrocketed. In 2009 Russell Moore, dean of the School of Theology at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and author of the 2009 book Adopted for Life, shepherded through a Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) resolution calling on all 16 million members of the denomination to become involved in adoption or “orphan care.” Last year at least five evangelical adoption conferences were held, and between 1,000 and 2,000 churches participated in an “Orphan Sunday” event in November. And in February, the mammoth evangelical adoption agency Bethany Christian Services announced that its adoption placements had increased 13 percent since 2009, in large part because of the mobilization of churches.

“We expect adoptions will continue to rise as new movements within the Christian community raise awareness and aid for the global orphan crisis,” Bethany CEO Bill Blacquiere said.

One result has been the creation of “rainbow congregations” across the country, like the congregation Moore helps pastor in Louisville, Highview Baptist. An active adoption ministry has brought 140 adopted children into the congregation in the past five years. These children don’t recognize the flags of their home countries, Moore proudly noted at a 2010 conference, but they can all sing “Jesus Loves Me.”

* * *

After the Haiti earthquake, the evangelical adoption movement sprang into action. Next to longstanding religious relief orphanages, upstart evangelical missions appeared. Some flung themselves into adversarial activism, decrying international aid organizations like UNICEF for obstructing the speedy adoption of Haitian children.

In the United States, evangelicals and sympathetic politicians led the charge for expanded, expedited international adoption for what they had claimed before the earthquake was the country’s 400,000 or more orphans—a figure repeated widely, despite a UNICEF clarification that likely only 50,000 children had lost both parents. (Identifying which children fit this description is a matter of painstaking investigation.)

Senator Mary Landrieu, a Louisiana Democrat and staunch adoption advocate, argued ferociously to expand a “humanitarian parole” program that expedites adoptions in progress: “Either UNICEF is going to change or have a very difficult time getting support from the US Congress,” she told the Associated Press.

Others used the emotional language of rescue; a Mormon mission president said he had “negotiated the release” of sixty-six children bound for Salt Lake City homes.

But what most people will remember about adoption in Haiti is the saga of Laura Silsby and nine other Southern Baptists who were jailed after trying to transport thirty-three “orphans”—most solicited from living families—to an unbuilt orphanage in the Dominican Republic, to await prospective evangelical adopters. Throughout the scandal the group members maintained they were simply “ten Christians who obeyed God’s calling.”

* * *

Silsby’s claims to divine guidance attracted scorn from the media—one outlet accused her of “baby-snatching for Jesus”—but her language resonates with now-commonplace Christian adoption rhetoric.

The movement cuts across evangelical distinctions, with the Southern Baptists taking a doctrinal lead; charismatic prayer warrior Lou Engle, co-founder of TheCall, praying for “the most outrageous adoption movement to be released through the church”; and Rick Warren declaring that members of his Saddleback Church will adopt 500 children in three years.

Individual ministries abound, like Orphan’s Ransom, which helps evangelicals pay international adoption fees that can range from $20,000 to $63,000. Churches report a “contagious” “adoption culture” in which even small congregations have adopted dozens of children in just a few years. Movement leaders say this viral effect is key to building the movement. “Get as many people in the church to adopt, and adopt as many kids as you can,” said one speaker at the 2010 Adopting for Life Conference, noting the particular power of a pastor’s example. Following that advice, in June the SBC joined with Bethany Christian Services to begin subsidizing Southern Baptist pastors’ adoption costs.

Observers from adoption lobby groups mention two watershed moments for the movement: Warren’s entrance into the orphan care field in 2005 and President Bush’s decision in 2008 to name Jedd Medefind, a former Republican staffer in the California legislature, as head of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives. Medefind is now the affable president of Christian Alliance for Orphans, a coalition of eighty Christian groups, and Warren’s church is helping to set up an adoption program in Rwanda.

“It was kind of a perfect storm,” reflects Tom DiFilipo, president of the Joint Council on International Children’s Services (JCICS), an influential secular adoption advocacy group that has sought to partner with the evangelical movement. “We hit that moment when a movement really starts to ramp up and get the attention of the public.”

The movement’s influence was on display in September in a closed-door meeting with UNICEF—frequently cast as “anti-adoption” for raising ethical concerns about adopting from disaster- or poverty-stricken nations—leveraged by six key evangelical adoption groups in an effort to find common ground.

As a way for conservative evangelicals to reclaim the social gospel message from liberal churches, adoption is a perfect storm, too, seemingly defining antiabortion activism as more truly “prolife”—or “whole life,” as one Bethany staffer coined it—while providing a new opportunity, as recent orphan theology texts explain, to spread the gospel. In Reclaiming Adoption, Cruver bluntly declares, “The ultimate purpose of human adoption by Christians, therefore, is not to give orphans parents, as important as that is. It is to place them in a Christian home that they might be positioned to receive the gospel.”

In person, Russell Moore denies that invoking the Great Commission means adoption is a vehicle for evangelism. But in Adopting for Life, he calls adoption “evangelistic to the core,” since Christian adoptive parents are “committing to years of gospel proclamation.” Likewise, although Medefind dismisses the idea of proselytizing through adoption, the Alliance membership agreement envisions “every orphan experiencing God’s unfailing love and knowing Jesus as Savior.”

Followers appear to have taken the message at face value. Last winter, in the wake of the earthquake, the Rev. Tom Benz announced his plan to “airlift 50 to 150 [Haitian] orphans” to a place called BridgeStone, a 140-acre retreat center owned by his Alabama church. Benz, a jolly pastor who runs an evangelical summer program for Ukrainian orphans next to the Black Sea, explained that the Haiti program would host children for ninety days, during which volunteers would teach them English, “immerse them in the gospel” and “incubate adoptions” with local church families.

Benz originally planned the program for Ukrainian orphans, but once he announced his Haiti plans, he says, he was overwhelmed by volunteer support and donations. Miles of new plumbing and electrical wire were laid for the center’s twenty-two cabins, and construction began on three permanent staff “lodges” (one for Benz’s family), almost all with donated materials and labor. Benz was optimistic that he could wrangle the system, with the help of a friend with State Department connections, by representing his plan as a foreign studies program.

“It’s not like we’re taking the kids permanently,” he said. “We’re taking them for ninety days, and then they’re going back.” Reminded of the adoption mission, Benz chuckled. “Well, that’s absolutely part of our agenda, but you know, that’s not the thing we’re going to emphasize to the Haitian government!”

Over the spring and summer of 2010, months wore on and passports for the Haitian children were not forthcoming. The only progress made was on the BridgeStone estate. After months of delays, a September fundraising missive asked donors for continued patience as Benz sought to “bring children out of darkness and suffering into faith and life in Jesus Christ.” Shortly thereafter, Benz’s Haiti blog came down, and he sent an announcement of the retreat center’s pending open house for the launch of its adoption program for Ukrainian children. By March it had resulted in eight adoptions that, Benz promised, would help the children “grow into mighty men and women of faith.”

* * *

For many adoption reformers, the Silsby affair changed the script for how adoption is discussed. Karen Moline, a board member of the watchdog group Parents for Ethical Adoption Reform, says Silsby “put a face to the worst part of what international adoption can be, which is entitlement,” meaning American parents’ sense of entitlement to developing nations’ children.

Susie Krabacher, an American and devout Christian, is director of Mercy and Sharing, a Haitian orphanage founded in 1994 to care for severely disabled, abandoned children, which does not perform adoptions. She says there is enormous economic pressure on Haitian parents to relinquish children. Many orphanages in Haiti provide for children whose parents can’t afford to feed them but who remain involved and visit often. But Haiti also has a history of unethical adoption programs. Post-earthquake, Krabacher says, they have become “the biggest money-making operation in Haiti.” Indeed, many orphanages, mindful of high international adoption fees, tell struggling parents that they should give up one of their children. The financial desperation in Haiti is so intense and the coercion so pervasive, Krabacher says, that the vast majority of Mercy and Sharing’s 181 employees “would have to look at the option of giving up a child if they didn’t have a job.”

This gets at the central problem in how most evangelical adoption ministries define the scope of the worldwide “orphan crisis.” As with the misleading estimates of Haitian orphans, the global numbers most frequently mentioned—ranging from 132 million to 210 million—paint an inaccurate picture, willfully misconstruing UNICEF tallies of developing nations’ vulnerable children, a category that includes children who have lost only one parent or who live with extended family.

Susan Bissell, UNICEF’s chief of child protection, says no good estimate exists of the number of orphans worldwide, but a 2004 UNICEF report calculated that there were at least 16 million children worldwide who had lost both parents.

“There are not 145 million kids out there waiting for someone in America to adopt them,” says Paul Myhill, president of the evangelical orphan ministry World Orphans, which he calls a “black sheep” in his field for its prioritization of in-country orphan care over adoption. “It’s unfair to bat these statistics around without using all the qualifiers.”

But those numbers have their effect. In July, Bethany Christian Services announced that “three of the largest Christian-based adoption agencies,” including itself, were “seeing record numbers of adoptions.” Bethany attributes the increase to the evangelical adoption movement as well as the crisis in Haiti, which inspired nearly 20,000 inquiries from across the United States, even though Haiti, post-quake, was quickly closed for new adoptions. Agencies like Bethany explained that they easily redirected this outpouring of enthusiasm to more open markets, like Ethiopia.

The problem is that Ethiopia, which last year was poised to become the world’s top “sending country,” is beset by numerous ethical scandals. In 2009 and 2010, investigations by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation and CBS News found evidence that Christian World Adoption—a US agency whose slogan is “God is in control of our agency and your adoption”—had recruited and allegedly even bought children from intact families, some of whom didn’t understand the permanency of adoption. (CWA claimed that these cases were misunderstandings and charged that it was being persecuted for its Christian beliefs.) In January the State Department hosted a conference call to discuss ethical difficulties surrounding Ethiopia’s adoption program. Just weeks later came the announcement that the license for Minnesota-based Christian agency Better Future Adoption Services had been revoked by the Ethiopian government over accusations of child trafficking. And in March, Ethiopia’s government announced it was cutting the rate of new adoptions by 90 percent.

Just after the Haiti earthquake, the Christian Alliance for Orphans advertised that its sixth-annual summit would produce a “long-term response” for Haiti’s orphans. By late April 2010, when nearly 1,200 Christians gathered for the summit at a megachurch outside Minneapolis, organizers had to contend with the shadow Silsby had cast. Even Moore worried that the scandal would “give a black eye to the orphan-care movement.”

“We’re killing ourselves with these ethical lapses,” says Chuck Johnson, president of the secular adoption lobby group the National Council for Adoption (NCFA). “I think Christians are the worst at this sometimes, about the ends justifying the means. ‘I will do anything to save this one child’s life’; ‘I will falsify a visa application if I have to.’”

In early 2010, Johnson told me, NCFA held an online ethics seminar that drew roughly twenty-five representatives from religious and secular adoption agencies. As part of the webinar, NCFA took a blind poll of participants’ responses to various ethical situations. Either through ignorance or a willingness to bend the rules, 20–30 percent of agency representatives gave answers that were tantamount to committing visa fraud or other serious violations. “You’ll hear people saying, I’m following God’s law, not man’s laws,” Johnson says.

Brian Luwis, founder of the evangelical agency America World Adoption and a Christian Alliance board member, says ardent adoptive parents can wreak havoc for those coming after them. “I call them ‘adoption crazies,’” he says. “They’re such strong advocates, they’ll do things in desperation to have a child they think is theirs. Some are really unlawful, falsifying an adoption or something like that. Many won’t get caught, but once you get caught, what have you done to the system?” It’s not hard to imagine how movement rhetoric that casts international adoption as emergency rescue and spiritual battle could inspire a willingness to use any means necessary.

There are indications that such rule-bending occurs at the top levels of government. Blogging about the 2010 Adoption Policy Conference in New York for The Huffington Post, sociologist Philip Cohen reported a troubling statement made by Whitney Reitz, an official at US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS)—the Homeland Security agency that oversees the entry of international adoptees. Reitz, who is credited with crafting last year’s “humanitarian parole” program for Haitian children, told the crowd, “The idea was to help the kids. And if we overlooked Hague, I don’t think I’m going to apologize.”

Chris Rhatigan, a USCIS spokesman, explains that the comment was made during a closed-door session not meant to be open to the media and in the context of a devastating natural disaster, “where very extraordinary measures were taken.” “Our main goal at the time was to save those children,” says Rhatigan. “I think they did everything they possibly could.”

* * *

Despite the Silsby affair, the Haiti earthquake helped accelerate the rise of the evangelical adoption movement, and increased its influence. At the Christian Alliance summit, JCICS’s DiFilipo implored the audience to advocate for less restrictive adoption policies, pointing to the drop in international adoptions from nearly 23,000 in 2004 to a projected 7,000 by 2012.

These numbers underlie a feeling among adoption advocates that even though demand is increasing, international adoption is under siege. “The days of a large sending country are over,” Johnson has said.

The decrease is often attributed to the closure of Guatemala and the slowdown in China. DiFilipo says the threat is far broader, with eight or nine countries “functionally suspending” intercountry adoption within the past three years—something he attributes to “institutional bias” against international adoption rather than documented ethical lapses.

As the numbers have dropped, the adoption industry has constricted, with the closure or merger of 25 percent of US agencies since 2000. The shuttering of Guatemala in 2008—what Luwis called “the gravy train” for many agencies—was a major factor. JCICS felt the squeeze too. In an internal 2009 document, the organization described financial shortages that forced it to halve expenses and staff in recent years.

“In the last few years, a bunch of top placing agencies in the US met together kind of clandestinely,” recalls Luwis. “To me it was a ‘saving our rear’ meeting. I take no salary. But for some of the others, this is their livelihood. They place thousands of kids; this is the way they’ve done it, they’re not going to change.”

Even as adoption numbers decrease, advocates maintain substantial bipartisan support. A key ally is Senator Landrieu, a founding member of the Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute and sponsor of numerous pieces of pro-adoption legislation—many in collaboration with hard-right senators.

Landrieu was scheduled to address the Christian Alliance summit but was waylaid by the BP oil spill. In her place spoke fellow Democratic Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, another advocate who has made common cause with right-wing senators like Sam Brownback and James Inhofe. Klobuchar told me how, as part of the first senatorial delegation to Haiti, she urged President René Préval to revise the country’s adoption and parental rights policies. In a September letter to the State Department, she interceded for US families whose pending adoptions from Nepal were halted after indications that the country’s newly reopened program was again processing trafficked children.

It’s an illustration of how temporary were the lessons from Haiti, and how common the underlying problems its scandals exposed. “Congress’s slant is that international adoption is good, so let’s get those kids out,” says Moline of Parents for Ethical Adoption Reform. “They don’t understand what the business aspect of it really means, and they must answer to their constituents’ demands.”

One of the most significant recent initiatives on Capitol Hill is the Families for Orphans Act, drafted by the Families for Orphans Coalition, whose executive committee includes DiFilipo, Luwis and Johnson. The bill, which Landrieu’s office will reintroduce this year, would create a special State Department office to oversee adoptions and offer—critics say condition—developmental aid to countries that help obtain permanent parental care for orphans, including through international adoption. In an op-ed published in the Washington Examiner in March 2010, co-sponsors Landrieu and Inhofe dangled the promise that the office could facilitate the placement of tens of thousands more Haitian children with US families.

Juntunen of Both Ends Burning believes the chokepoint created as newly mobilized evangelicals enter the tightening adoption market will spark outrage that will transform the system—cutting red tape, and possibly needed safeguards, along the way. “We’ve created this culture of adoption, and now more and more people want to participate and are left frustrated because they’re denied the opportunity to pursue what they want to pursue,” Juntunen told me. “Well, that’s where social movements happen. I think that this culture of adoption will be the force, the catalyst, for change.”

And the pressure won’t be coming just from evangelicals. In June, Together for Adoption and other evangelical leaders will meet with Juntunen and his network of secular adoption advocates to discuss ways to reverse the international adoption freefall.

After a year of headlines concerning improperly adopted children, from Haiti to Nepal to Ethiopia, evangelical advocates admit that the system is troubled, but they insist that expanding international adoption is necessary and, if done right, beautiful. “There’s always going to need to be tremendous vigilance that compassionate intentions lead to compassionate outcomes,” says the Christian Alliance’s Medefind. “But if you’re not willing to deal with complexity, it would be wise to stay away from efforts to address the world’s needs.”

Despite the altruistic motives of many evangelical adopters, the size and wealth of their movement is likely to tip the balance of a system that already responds too blithely to the moral and humanitarian concerns raised by poor countries and all too readily to Western demand.

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